LONDON – The United Kingdom announced on Tuesday the postponement of the imposition of customs controls on food imported from the European Union, after leaving the common market of the bloc in January of this year. Added to the Covid-19 pandemic, the post-Brexit effects have been causing a supply crisis in British supermarkets and restaurants.
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Physical inspections of imported food should have started in the month following the completion of the divorce, but were postponed to 1O October and then to 1O January 2022. In a statement, Brexit Minister David Frost announced that the deadline will be postponed once again, now to 1O of July of next year, given the structural and supply problems.
“We want companies to prioritize their recovery from the pandemic rather than having to deal with new rules at the border,” said Frost. “Companies will now have more time to prepare these controls.”
The introduction of new customs controls is expected to put additional pressure on UK supply chains at a time when supermarkets and restaurants are already facing shortages. The EU is Britain’s main trading partner, and around 30% of all food consumed in the UK comes from the bloc, according to the British Trade Consortium.
According to the schedule announced today, in January companies will only need to complete customs declarations. Documents relating to safety and protection, in addition to phytosanitary certificates, will only become mandatory in the second half, along with physical controls on food.
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The additional period, said the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), “may help ease pressure on supply chains ahead of the traditionally busy Christmas season”:
— But the impact will be ephemeral unless this additional time allows us to move forward with the challenges that companies face — said the organization’s director for Europe, Sean McGuire, defending the relaxation of immigration rules, as the “supply shortage is caused by the shortage of labor”.
Even without customs controls, the UK is already feeling the impacts of Brexit. Popular restaurant chain Nando’s, famous for its chicken dishes, had to close some of its establishments for lack of raw materials. McDonald’s lack smoothies and bottled drinks, while the Weatherspoon pub chain lacks a few beers. According to Coca-Cola, its factories on British soil have run out of aluminum cans, while Sainsbury supermarkets have several empty shelves.
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This is partly due to the new British immigration law, in force since February of last year, which restricts the access of European citizens to the country’s labor market. Its implementation, however, coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and plans to adjust the need for labor to the new rules were sidelined.
“Since then, many of our members describe to us a perfect storm,” analyzed the CBI in a report. “Not only has the pandemic disrupted preparation and adaptation to the new immigration system, it has also caused many EU workers to leave the country to be closer to their families.”
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No prospect of improvement
Official estimates suggest that more than a million foreigners would have left the UK in 2020 — and, among those who stayed, many have not regularized their situation. Therefore, companies need to apply for a visa, demonstrate that the employee meets the rules of the new immigration law or that the job offer will pay more than 30,000 euros a year.
The CBI estimates the UK would need at least 100,000 more truckers to alleviate growing shortages. There is also a lack of skilled workers to move heavy machinery, work in food factories, care for livestock and harvest crops. There is a shortage of store assistants, people to work in storerooms, electrician chamberlains — a shortage that causes many companies and establishments to artificially limit their capacity.
“All this will last longer than people think,” said the newspaper El País Andrew Sentance, an economist who advises the analyst firm Cambridge Econometrics and a former consultant to the Bank of England. — The lack of skilled workers can last for years. The impact Brexit has had on our ability to source labor from the EU will remain. (With Reuters)